Belly Dancing. It evokes a mental image of sitting in some dark underground club in Karachi, chewing khat while watching Theda Bara gyrate to some exotic variation of “Streets of Cairo.” her piercing eyes darkened with kohl, wearing the traditional Bedlah: Coin bra, face veil, beaded dress. The smoke filled air smells of opium, shady goings on in every corner, Mata Hari whispering secrets in your ear…
It’s literally the world’s oldest form of dance, certainly one of the most pleasurable to watch (at least I think so) and probably the most fulfilling to learn (although probably not for me, since I don’t have the hips). So it deserves a good documentary and Steve Balderson’s “Underbelly” delivers.
Taking cues from other low key docs that immerse you in the world that they’re documenting rather than annoyingly try to teach you the specifics of the subject point by point as if there’s a test after, Balderson is an unbiased invisible presence throughout. His camera is everywhere: capturing moments, serving as a confessional, recording thoughts, but never intruding. We go from the fundamentals and history of the dance, to how it’s taught, to what shows look like, to discussions about the differences between the purely traditional style and the fusion of more modern styles such as burlesque.
I can’t tell you how nice it is to watch a documentary that, you know, DOCUMENTS instead of serving as a soapbox for the filmmaker’s own views. This isn’t a movie about Steve Balderson (although that would be an interesting one) it’s about the ever evolving world of Belly Dancing in general and Pleasant Gehman in particular.
Pleasant Gehman, who dances under the name of Princess Farhana, is definitely an interesting person. She’s a survivor of the 80’s L.A. punk scene. Normally, this would be a rather frightening proposition since so many of the old school punkers are fruit loop incoherent basket cases with all the memory of Leonard Shelby and the mental acuity of Algernon. However, you’ll be glad to know that Gehman isn’t like that at all, but instead an energetic, intelligent and observant woman. She’s awesome!
Gehman also embodies my favorite qualities in women in that she’s smart, funny, at ease with herself and just seems to enjoy life. She’s the type of person who not only has the presence of mind to recognize when interesting things happen to her, but who also has the vocabulary to describe these things in an interesting way afterwards. That’s a very rare combination. I know people who could hunt vampires for a living and make it sound more boring than sitting through a Ben Stein lecture on income tax revisions. Pleasant Gehman, on the other hand, knows how to make every story she tells come to vivid life.
Likewise, Balderson’s visual storytelling expertise comes into play here and he assembles all the interviews and footage in such a way that you’re never bored and never tired of the subject. That’s a good thing too, since I literally loathe the act of dancing. I’m sorry, but I do. I don’t like loud music, I don’t like to be in front of people and I don’t like to move when I don’t have to. Yet, even I found Underbelly interesting and engaging. Not only did it explain belly dancing to me, but also dancing as a whole. The way I see it now, Belly Dancing’s legend, long history and sense of timelessness is its appeal. You can’t fake these women’s (and men’s, because yes men bellydance too.) love of what they do. They’re part of something bigger than themselves and they show it reverence. It’s not just about dancing, it’s not just about amusing a crowd; it’s about continuing a tradition or taking that tradition and recreating it to suit your own personality. It’s a living art. So even though I may not like dancing, I understand it now.
The funniest parts of the documentary have to do with how the dancers themselves feel about the fusion between traditional belly dancing and the more risqué burlesque, which is a big taboo in some of the Belly Dancing world since they’ve spent so much time trying to teach dumb westerners that it isn’t stripping. I understand where they’re coming from. But still, burlesque is such a PG version of stripping in my opinion that it makes me laugh to see some of them get so bothered by Pleasant’s shows. From what we’re shown, they seem so innocent and sweet that only the most dogmatic could complain. Look, I’m French, so there’s just no way that I could consider the female form to be too dirty or overtly sexual for a general audience. Especially with something like burlesque which is all innuendo and euphemism. I think it’s sexy and cute, not porn. Porn is open mouth cumshots and anal fisting, not emulating Mae West or Bettie Page like a little girl dressing up.
I like Steve Balderson, I really do. He’s a textbook example of the purest kind of filmmaker. He experiments and has fun with the medium. There’s no pretense behind what he does at all, just love. Also, Balderson has assembled a compelling piece here. Underbelly is so well done and feels so complete that it almost transcends the subject matter and becomes a documentary about passion; and whether or not we’re into dancing that’s something we can all relate to.